The Easiest, Most Flexible Way to Meal Plan

The Easiest, Most Flexible Way to Meal Plan

How to create a meal plan is not always straightforward, but this method will help you learn to cook at home with whatever ingredients you have available, and ensure that your easy quarantine meals turn out great every time. 

  • By Leila Kalmbach
  • April 8, 2020

Meal planning has never been more important — or, for many of us, more challenging — than in our current moment. We’re being encouraged to grocery shop just once every two weeks, which means it’s crucial to know exactly how much food to buy and exactly how to use it. 

But the mental load of meal planning is REAL. And at a time when parents are unexpectedly becoming teachers, office workers are unexpectedly going remote, the gainfully employed are suddenly job seekers, and essential workers are taking on challenges and burdens they never could have foreseen, it’s only natural that adding meal planning to the to-do list feels overwhelming for many. 

And yet, we still have to eat. 

That’s why we want to share our favorite super-simple meal planning method to help you prepare for the weeks ahead with less stress. It’s easy enough that it doesn’t require a lot of time and effort, is flexible enough to accommodate those grocery shortages you can’t ever plan for, and keeps things interesting enough that you may well make it a permanent part of your routine once life goes back to (more-or-less) normal.

How it works

The secret? Designate a category of meal for each day of the week. Simply choose types of meals you and your family could eat over and over, then customize them with your preferences and what’s available. We’ve started you off with a suggested rotation, so if you want to keep decisions to an absolute minimum, just snag our plan and run! We’ve also offered alternatives so that if you don’t like a category we suggest, you can easily swap in your own.

Monday // Sandwich Night

Mondays can be tough, so we like to start the week off with a quick and easy win. But just because sandwiches can be simple doesn’t mean they have to be boring! 

We’re fans of the classic BLT — or better yet, Avocado BLT, because who can resist avocado?! Uplevel your grilled cheese game with Spinach and Artichoke Grilled Cheese. Or make it sweet and savory with Sweet Potato and Balsamic Onion Grilled Cheese. There’s also no shame in setting out lunch meat, sliced cheese, greens, tomato slices, and mayo and mustard and letting everyone choose their ingredients. 

For sides, you can serve veggie sticks with a dip like ranch or bleu cheese dressing or peanut sauce. You could make a simple side salad of lettuce and tomatoes. Toss veggies in some cooking oil, salt, and pepper and roast them. Tomato soup is also a classic pairing. Or you could just rip open a bag of chips and have at it — you’ll get no judgment from us!

Alternatives:

  • Baked Protein Night: Sheet pan meals are just as quick and easy to throw together. You can roast veggies right alongside your baked chicken, fish, beef, or pork, and the meat juices will add great flavor to your veggies. Follow this meal template to create a variety of sheet pan dinners.
  • Meatless Monday: Eating less meat is good for the planet and ourselves, so make it a habit with a weekly Meatless Monday. Beans, seeds, tofu, peanut butter, quinoa, seitan, lentils, and more make fantastic vegetarian protein sources, and are a great way to change things up. 

Tuesday // Taco Tuesday (obvs!)

In our book, tacos aren’t just for Tuesdays — but if you’re going to designate a day of the week for them, you might as well go classic! You can also switch it up and make taco salad if you’re out of tortillas or taco shells.

Go traditional with ground beef, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, black beans, avocado, sour cream, and / or queso fresco, many of which we include in our version of Classic Tacos. Alternately, give your tacos an Asian flair with panko-breaded fish drizzled with Sriracha mayo and Asian-style coleslaw (see our Asian Fish Tacos). Bake chicken alongside strips of bell pepper and onion for Sheet Pan Chicken Fajitas, served taco-style. Marinate tofu in a garlic–honey–soy sauce–vinegar–ketchup mixture for Banh Mi Tofu Tacos, and serve topped with pickled vegetables. Or make breakfast tacos with your choice of scrambled eggs, chorizo, potatoes, cheese, beans, avocado, and salsa!

Many taco recipes can also be turned into quesadillas or casseroles for a little something different. 

Alternatives:

  • Casserole Night: Mac ‘n’ cheese casserole. Enchilada casserole. French onion soup casserole. Broccoli rice casserole. The possibilities are endless!
  • Pot Pie Night: If you’re a fan of this crusty dinner pastry, why not make it a regular occurrence? No need to stick with the classic; fill your pies with kale, beans, lamb, chili, pepperoni, broccoli, and more.

Wednesday // Salad Night

If you have leftovers from taco night, throw ‘em on your salads! Hearty salads are a great way to get your veggies while using up random leftover ingredients, or they can be a canvas for something completely new. 

What separates a great salad from one that’s just okay is the variety of flavors and textures you include. Although leftover veggies or proteins can be great on salads, don’t just throw toppings on randomly, but consider how to incorporate the five tastes (salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami — and we like to add spicy here as well). You don’t need to add them all for a great meal, but including two or three can add some much-needed balance. For instance, a salty cheese might pair well with the sweetness of grapes; spicy chopped jalapeño can be offset by acidic lime; bitter grapefruit goes nicely with the slightly sweet umami of avocado.

When it comes to texture, try to balance crunchy and soft ingredients in your salad. To amp up the crunch, add nuts or seeds, cabbage, croutons or toasted bread crumbs, celery, air-fried chickpeas, crumbled tortilla chips, or carrots. For soft ingredients, think goat cheese, avocado, soft-boiled egg, tomato, olives, or black beans. 

Some of our favorites include this Tuna Roll Salad with seared ahi tuna, avocado, and cashews; Crunchy Tex-Mex Salad with Pinto Beans, drizzled with a smoky honey adobo dressing; and our Lentil Niçoise Salad, a twist on the classic Niçoise that includes familiar elements such as potatoes, green beans, and olives in a lemony sherry vinaigrette. For more salad know-how and ideas, refer to our salad infographic!

Alternatives:

  • Baked Potato Night: Baked potatoes (or sweet potatoes) can be topped with anything from broccoli to black beans to chili to guacamole. Keep it simple by setting out ingredients and letting everyone build their own.
  • Pasta Night: Make it quick and easy with marinara sauce from a jar and sautéed zucchini with mushrooms, or get creative with a homemade, herb-rich sauce.

Thursday // Grain Bowl Night

Grains. Protein. Veggies. Sauce. What could be simpler? We love a good grain bowl for its ease, but also for its versatility since you can mix and match a wide variety of ingredients. It’s easy to change up the flavors, too, by customizing the sauce you pour on top, so the exact same grain or veggies may taste completely different from one week to the next. 

Rice may be the obvious choice of grain, but even here you have options. Jasmine or brown jasmine rice is great for Asian-style bowls, white long-grain styles are ideal for Tex-Mex. Sushi rice can be used for raw fish poke bowls, while basmati is great in Indian styles. Wild rice can add some chewiness and extra nutrition. But think outside the rice cooker too: Quinoa, barley, farro, kamut, couscous, or even oats can all make great beds for a grain bowl. 

For protein, you can easily use leftovers, rotisserie chicken, or cook fish, chicken, beef, tofu, paneer, or eggs. Veggies can be anything from raw spinach to roasted butternut squash to sundried tomatoes to kimchi. For a sauce, any vinaigrette will work, or mix yogurt with chopped fresh herbs and optional lemon and / or honey. Watch how we build a customizable grain bowl with this video.

Some of our favorite combos include spinach and lentils, as in our Middle Eastern Lentil and Couscous Bowls; beef and bell pepper kebabs over barley with a yogurt sauce (see our Beef Kebab Grain Bowls); and Warm Farro and Roasted Vegetable Grain Bowls with lemon-dill vinaigrette. 

Alternatives:

  • Curry Night: If you’re a fan of Southeast Asian cuisine, these saucy stews, typically served over rice, include a spice blend, vegetables, and protein, often with coconut milk or yogurt to cut the heat. 
  • Breakfast-for-Dinner Night: Who doesn’t love fluffy pancakes, pillowy eggs, and fruit salad? Add some extra vitamins and minerals with a side salad of arugula and berries or a quick tomato-spinach sauté.

Friday // Stir-Fry Night

By this point, you likely have some awkward amounts of veggies or proteins left over from earlier in the week — a handful of chopped broccoli, a quarter of a bell pepper, half a can of beans, etc. You may even have some leftover rice or other grain from Thursday’s grain bowls. Throw it all together for a simple stir-fry or fried rice and you’ll reduce food waste while getting a great meal. 

The secret to a good stir-fry is adding a little water — not more oil! — if it looks like the veggies might burn. Sauce is typically added at or near the end of cooking, and quick-cooking proteins can be cooked along with the veggies, or they can be cooked first and added back in toward the end. For fried rice, using leftover cold rice works best to prevent it from sticking to the pan. Check out our Stir-Fry Guide for more helpful stir-frying tips!

Some of our favorite combos include Pork and Asparagus Stir-Fry in a garlic-ginger-soy sauce (oyster sauce, honey, red pepper flakes, and sesame oil add some great flavors here too); the unusual but seriously tasty combo of peas, carrots, pine nuts, and raisins in our Middle Eastern Fried Rice with Turkey; and broccoli, bell peppers, and / or green beans alongside chicken, beef, or chickpeas, as in our Broccoli, Cashew, and Chickpea Stir-Fry.

Alternatives:

  • Leftover Night: If you tend to overcook, this one’s for you!
  • Takeout Night: Because let’s be real, we could all use a break from time to time. Knowing when it’ll happen makes takeout feel like a treat, not a meal planning failure! 

Saturday // Pizza Night

Saturdays tend to be for relaxing, so it’s a perfect time for stretching some dough, setting out toppings, and letting everyone do their thing. But because you probably have a little more time than on the weekdays, you can also get creative or complex with toppings if you choose — or mix the dough yourself! Pizza can be cooked on the grill, in the oven, or even on stovetop in a pinch, so it’s easily adaptable to the weather and your own equipment.

If you’re using store-bought dough or made your own ahead of time, let it warm up to room temperature before attempting to stretch it, at least 30 and up to around 90 minutes. You can also buy a frozen crust or use naan — or even pita bread for personal pizzas! Our Ultimate Pizza Guide breaks down all you need to know about creating your own homemade pizzas.

We wouldn’t blame you for sticking with cheese or pepperoni, but more inventive combinations can be pretty tempting as well. For instance, we’re a big fan of drizzling Thai sweet chili sauce over the top of rotisserie chicken, shallots, carrots, and peanuts for a Thai Chicken Pizza. Leftover pulled pork and pineapple are a surprisingly good combo, as on this BBQ Naan Pizza. And don’t knock Roasted Butternut Squash Hummus Pita Pizza ’til you try it! 

For choose-your-own-topping pizzas, we recommend setting out roasted veggies, garlic, any cheeses you have on hand, olive oil, marinara sauce, herbs, cured meats, leftover proteins, tomatoes, olives, peppers, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, kale, spinach, or whatever else needs to get used up!

Alternatives:

  • Burger Night: If you’re a Bob’s Burgers fan, you’ll know the options for burgers extend way beyond lettuce and tomato, so get creative with it! Consult our Ultimate Burger Guide for inspiration.
  • Grill Night: Weather permitting, grilling is a relaxing, tasty way to cook your dinner, and even makes it easy for everyone to choose what they want to eat. 

Sunday // Soup Night

Soup is a great way to prepare for busy weeknights when there will be no time to cook. Make a big batch and plan to have leftovers later in the week, or freeze them for a few weeks down the road. 

Most soups start with sautéed onions, and many include garlic, carrot, and celery as well. If you’re improvising, you can throw in just about any vegetables you have on hand, but as a rule of thumb, the best soups tend to contain a small amount of a root vegetable (potato, sweet potato, beet, rutabaga, parsnip, etc.), a moderate amount of cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, bok choy), and some leafy greens (spinach, mustard greens, collards, chard, etc.). In addition to herbs and spices, you can add wine, vinegar, fish sauce, tomatoes, citrus juice, or milk / cream to the broth to adjust the flavors. And of course, who can resist a sprinkle of cheese before serving?

Some of our favorite soups include the classics: creamy broccoli cheese, minestrone, chicken noodle, and tomato bisque. But don’t let them distract you for too long — there’s a world of flavor waiting in Lasagna Soup, which re-creates the classic lasagna dish in delicious tomato soup form, complete with a dollop of ricotta on top. There’s some serious comfort food in Italian Sausage and Chard White Bean Soup, perfect for dipping garlic bread. And for umami and spice lovers, Spicy Miso Udon Noodle Soup is a beautiful combo of spiced ground pork with baby bok choy.

Alternatives:

  • Slow Cooker Night: Another convenient way to make a big batch of food, it couldn’t be easier to throw ingredients into the slow cooker in the morning and have a hot meal ready to go that night.
  • Fish Night: Fried, baked, broiled, pan-seared, or steamed, fish makes for a great light meal. If you go to the store on the same day each week, fish night should be that day or the next so it stays fresh, though if you’re cooking from frozen, fish can be eaten anytime!

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The Easiest, Most Flexible Way to Meal Plan During Quarantine | Cook SmartsThe Easiest, Most Flexible Way to Meal Plan During Quarantine | Cook SmartsThe Easiest, Most Flexible Way to Meal Plan During Quarantine | Cook Smarts

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